Are private schools accountable to the public?
One of the more amazing criticisms ever leveled at private schools is that they are not accountable to the public.
Why is this criticism amazing?
Because of the fundamental difference between public and private schools. Funding for public schools comes through the involuntary method of taxation, which means the money keeps on coming regardless of whether or not people are satisfied with the schools' performance. By contrast, privately (read: voluntarily) funded schools can go out of business if they fail to satisfy their customers. It is in this way that private schools can be said to be accountable by definition.
Furthermore, public schools' reliance on coercive funding sources means that they suffer from a lack of accountability themselves. This reliance is why we need volumes of laws to monitor and regulate the schools' activities. But even with all these laws, public schools can never be as accountable as private schools are for the simple reason that regulation cannot substitute for the kind of consumer accountability private schools exhibit.
But consumer accountability isn't the only way private schools are held accountable. For example, Missouri Synod Lutheran Schools, which educate over 24,000 Michigan students, are first and foremost accountable to God. As superintendent of these schools, I would remind those who believe this makes no serious practical difference of the fact that we operate eight schools in the city of Detroit. These are attended by 100 percent non-Lutheran children. In the remainder of our schools, the non-Lutheran figure varies between 10 and 50 percent. Apparently there are many people out there who are willing to make sacrifices so that their children can take advantage of the practical difference religious accountability makes in our schools' atmosphere, curriculum, and orientation. If this were not so, we wouldn't be in business.
Another way religious accountability manifests itself in Lutheran schools is in the degree to which the authority and responsibility of parents is respected. God's Word teaches that Christian training is first and foremost a parental responsibility, and Lutheran schools exist to help parents fulfill this responsibility. All teachers at Lutheran schools therefore are required to form educational partnerships with parents. The more parents are involved in these partnerships, the greater the impact of Christian education.
Lutheran schools- and other private schools- also are held accountable to the state through a surprising number of government laws and regulations. For example, all private schools in Michigan have been subject to the Private, Denominational and Parochial Schools Act since 1921. This act specifically gives Michigan's Superintendent of Public Instruction the authority to examine the sanitary conditions, pupil enrollments, courses of study, and qualifications of teachers.
Another law mandates that all teachers must be graduates of certified teacher-training institutions and possess a valid teaching certificate. About 80 percent of all Lutheran teachers are trained in our 10 teacher colleges throughout the United States. The other 20 percent are dedicated Lutherans who are graduates of secular institutions such as Michigan State. Our office tracks the certification of approximately 1,000 Lutheran teachers. We keep a current copy of each certificate in the teacher's personnel folder. All of our first-year teachers also take a teacher competency test required by the state. The Michigan Department of Education requires all schools to report enrollment, faculty number, and teacher certification every September. Non-compliance can lead to a school being deleted from the list of "approved" private schools and possibly closed down.
Other state laws require that every school conduct a minimum of eight fire drills and two tornado drills per year. Schools are required to keep a log of the dates of the drills and the evacuation times are recorded and kept on file. Our buildings are periodically visited by the State Fire Marshall's office, the Department of Health, and the State Boiler Inspector.
Furthermore, children must present a certificate proving they have been immunized before they may attend our schools. Principals are required by law to report to the local health department on the status of immunization at the time of school entry and for new kindergarten/first grade students.
Lutheran schools also comply with the number of school days per year required by the state: 180 days with 1,098 instructional hours. A number of our schools currently exceed these minimum requirements.
New construction of Lutheran schools and remodeling of existing schools must comply with the State Construction Code regarding "barrier-free access" for physically limited persons. We are fully affected by and comply with all provisions of the Americans With Disabilities Act. We also must comply with federal laws regarding the abatement of cancer-causing asbestos.
We also comply with regulations regarding the medical handling of blood borne pathogens, safe drinking water, environmental tobacco smoke, indoor air-quality management, pesticide management, the presence of radon, sexual harassment, and poster notification.
Finally, a 1996 law requires that all teachers and support staff that come in contact with children be subject to a State Police and FBI background check.
In short, "lack of accountability" may be a problem in Michigan public schools, but it is not so among private schools. We are accountable by our nature as voluntarily funded institutions. We are accountable according to our religious beliefs. And we are accountable to the state through a vast array of laws and regulations as well.
George Locke, Ph.D., currently serves as superintendent of the Michigan District-Missouri Synod Lutheran schools, which number 160 preschools, 95 elementary schools, and 7 high schools with a combined enrollment of over 24,000 students.